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Taking education to a higher plane

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A Plan paper warns of an emerging talent supply shortage that could lead to a significant loss of opportunities for the country. To enable India make the most of its "demographic dividend," urgent measures are needed to improve the quality of higher education and expand the supply of top institutions, says S. D. NAIK.

IITS AND IIMS are but islands of excellence in higher education.
IITS AND IIMS are but islands of excellence in higher education.

S. D. NAIK

Several recent studies have revealed that India is facing a deepening crisis in higher education with declining standards and a poor governance. This is of course not counting the IITs, IIMs and a few other islands of excellence. With the state all but abdicating its responsibility of allocating adequate resources for creating institutions to cater to the ever-growing demand for higher education, the problem has got aggravated.

While a number of experts have emphasised the need to have more IITs and IIMs, as also research centres to cater to a fast growing economy, the country is facing an acute shortage of faculty, particularly in technical education. In engineering alone, there is a demand for 1.2 lakh teachers, but the system has just around 7,000 Ph.Ds and 20,000 M.Techs; the rest are fresh B.Techs.

Declining Quality

Despite the existence of mechanisms to maintain the quality, the overall standard of higher education has continued to deteriorate, thus reducing the value of an academic degree from most institutions of higher learning. According to sources in industry, only about a fourth of the graduates are employable. There is a growing shortage of skills alongside a high prevalence of unemployment among graduates.

Head-hunters in the field of information technology (IT) and IT enabled services (ITES) have expressed alarm over the quality of fresh graduates and have asked universities to get their act together. Addressing vice-chancellors from across the country on in November, the Nasscom (National Association of Software and Service Companies) President, Mr Kiran Karnik, pointed out that the entry selection average stood at 20-25 per cent for engineers and 15 per cent for other graduates.

Mr Karnik added that the curricula were outdated in most universities and equipment obsolete; students, he said, had weak foundations because of which they were unable to pick up new skills. He also blamed the education system for not emphasising on communication, or encouraging teamwork.

Poor funding

The reasons for the falling quality of higher education are not far to seek. The public funding for of higher education is grossly inadequate, at just around 0.37 per cent of GDP. Higher education received just seven per cent of the total allocation to education in the Tenth Plan. The government will have to more than double this allocation for higher education in the Eleventh Plan if it accepts the recommendations of academic bodies.

While the best institutions, in terms of quality education, are still those funded by the government, the creation of more such institution has been too few and far between. This has led to an unbridled growth of private institutions and entry into the field of unscrupulous profit-seekers. In the case of professional courses, capacity constraints in state-funded facilities have become acute. Consequently, private providers are able to charge very high fees, most of the time without giving receipts, on each seat offered. The quality of education provided by these institutions is often poor because of shortage of qualified faculty, pitiable library facilities, non-existent teaching tools and other basic infrastructure. A majority of these institutions are supported, if not started, by politicians, who are often involved directly.

Talent shortage

A Plan paper has warned of an emerging talent supply shortage and the unemployability of a large proportion of the talent pool that could lead to a significant loss of opportunities. Be it in IT, manufacturing or the services sector, fresh talent that is employable is the most sought after commodity today. The IT industry alone is expected to hire an additional one million people over the next three years, adding to the existing 1.3 million people, and already a massive talent shortage is manifest in the economy. A Nasscom-McKinsey Report (2005) estimated that the engineering talent shortage in IT would be five lakh by 2009, representing an opportunity cost of $10 billion.

Although the country produces some six lakh engineering graduates every year, only a little over a lakh get hired by companies from campuses. Another 2.5 lakh manage to get jobs after some time but the rest are considered unemployable and left to take up some employment. Many IT companies then recruit diploma holders and B.Sc graduates and train them to make them employable.

Remedial Measures

To enable India make the most of its "demographic dividend," urgent measures are needed to improve the quality of education provided by the existing institutions and expand the supply of top institutions imparting quality education. A high rate of economic growth is not a function of capital investment alone; it requires a highly qualified and trained human resource.

The Plan paper cited above makes a strong case for setting up colleges and universities in educationally backward districts, in addition to strengthening and expanding the existing institutions.

"One university in each State should be made a model of excellence through all-round upgradation during the Eleventh Plan," the Plan paper, said adding that select universities should be upgraded to the level of central universities.

Also, efforts are needed to make optimum use of the facilities available with a number of pure research institutes created under the Indian Council of Social Science Research, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. These institutions could be asked to undertake post-graduate teaching, in addition to their research activities and Ph.D. programmes. Most of such existing institutions have first-rate facilities in terms of infrastructure and faculty.

It is time to invite foreign universities to set up campuses by liberalising the rules for foreign participation in higher education. The quality of higher education will improve significantly if education providers from reputed foreign institutions come here. Even the IITs and IIMs will have to face competition if institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Harvard universities open campuses in India.

NEW URGENCY

These measures are long overdue and have assumed a new urgency because the demand for quality higher education is expected to witness a quantum jump over the next few years because of the following reasons:

The gross

enrolment ratio in higher education in India is just about 11 per cent. With the literacy base of the population and the base of schooling expected to expand at a faster pace, the demand for higher education is set to grow at a much higher rate.

As the

growth of the economy has now entered a higher trajectory, and the knowledge-based industries are making waves, the demand for qualified manpower is growing.

Some 1,20,000

students leave India every year to study abroad; the outflow on this account was $4 billion last year.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 22, 2006)
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